Dir/sc: Rex Bloomstein. UK.2005. 97mins.
Initially KZ,Rex Bloomstein's harrowing documentary, appears tocover seemingly familiar territory. His subject is the former concentrationcamp of the title, located at Mauthausen in UpperAustria, and the last of the Nazi death camps to be liberated after the war.Thousands of men, women and children from more than 30 different nations diedhere. It was where Hungarian Jews were sent (and where many perished) in late1945, when it was already obvious that Germany had lost the war.
By making KZ, Bloomsteinhas stated that is attempting to "re-think the conventions of Holocaust documentary."He argues that, after so many films based on archive material and interviewswith survivors, new strategies are needed for exploring the almost unthinkableevil of the Nazi genocide against the Jews.
In KZ he investigates just what kind of shadow the atrocities now caston the lives of the locals who live near the site of the old camp and on thetourists who make their pilgrimages there.
Screened as a world premiereat IDFA last November, KZ has beenchosen for the World Cinema Competition: Documentary sidebar in Sundance laterthis month. A strong critical response should help earn the documentary furtheroutings on the festival circuit as well as limited theatrical play, but it's onthe small screen that it will reach its biggest audience.
Bloomstein, whose earlier work includes such films aboutanti-Semitism and the Holocaust as AuschwitzAnd The Allies (1982) and The Longest Hatred (1991), eschews voice-over narration, music andarchive footage.
Rather his approach issubtle and understated - but this only serves to make the film all the moreunsettling. As early establishing shots make clear, Mauthausenis a beautiful place, steeped in history. Alongside its churches and oldbuildings, it has its own McDonalds. In other words, it would be just anothertown were it not for KZ.
Hannah Arendt'smuch-quoted remark about the "banality of evil" is given a new resonance hereas we listen to the reminiscences of old ladies ("when they were burning them[the prisoners], the whole of Mauthausen stank") orencounter a young couple who live in a house once used by the SS. Onemiddle-aged woman complains that she cannot admit where she lives withoutpeople shuddering.
Bloomstein's camera captures local dancers and musicians enjoyinga knees-up at a tavern close to the camp which the Nazis used to frequent, seeminglyoblivious to the crimes once committed in their backyard.
An SS wife recalls herromantic and beautiful wedding at a registry office in the camp, somehowforgetting the violence taking place around her as she took her vows. Anold-timer waxes nostalgic about the Hitler Youth and talks about an old huntingfriend who was a commandant at the camp. ("Off duty, he was a wonderful person,but you wouldn't believe what he did in the camp.")
But the central figures in KZ are the tour guides, some of themgrandchildren of SS officers. They, at least, refuse to forget or gloss overtheir town's history. Bloomstein's camera catchesthem as they give graphic descriptions of the torture, humiliation and killingof the prisoners. Young students, on day trips to the camp, and older visitorsare visibly shocked by what they hear.
In the gas chamber, welearn, it could take anything between four and 20 minutes to die. Young andold, men, women and children, were piled on top of one another. "Zyklon B is an insecticide. It causes internalsuffocation," a guide informs his audience in level, matter-of-fact tones."Blood can't transport oxygen. You cramp beyond recognition. Lots of the bonesbreak in the body because of the strong camps. Also, you expel all bodilyfluids."
The descriptions grow evermore grotesque. Not that all the visitors are perturbed. In a grimly comicmoment, one tourist cheerfully states that he has enjoyed his trip and wants togo to Auschwitz next. The guides also reveal that some visitors have stolenmementoes: shower heads from the gas chambers or photographs of those whoperished. They have even scratched swastikas into the commemorative plaques.
Bloomstein doesn't editorialise or judge, and there are nogrand generalisations about the nature of evil. Instead he explores howpresent-day life in Mauthausen is affected by whatwent on in the camp. Sixty years on, he makes clear, KZ remains as difficult asever for both outsiders and locals alike. They cannot forget about it - butthey cannot make sense of it either.